Tense Shift

Tense shift is an error I often mark in student papers. In church yesterday it occurred to me that it is also an error we make in our walk with God. In a paper, tense shift happens when a student tells a story in the past tense and without warning or reason shifts to present tense. Sometimes a student will shift back and forth throughout their narrative. It creates confusion and incoherence.

Spiritually, Christians are tempted to confuse past and present tense. We need both tenses for healthy spirituality, but each in the right way. For instance, I need to know what has been done for me on the cross: forgiveness, cleansing of my sin, freedom from guilt and shame, death to my old self-centered identity. I need this foundational past tense.

But I also need to fully embrace my present tense in Christ. I am a new creation, child of God, heir of Christ, and temple of the Holy Spirit. We were once children of darkness, but are now children of light. We sing a new song now.

However, many things muddle our tenses and keep us singing the same old song. Looking at our present tense failures and struggles, we are tempted to forget what Christ has done on the cross for us. Satan, the accuser of the brethren, is always trying to define us by our past sins and present failures instead of what Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection.

It is tempting to let our past define our present and future. Although I understand the reason behind the practice, I still object to alcoholics having to say, “ Hi, my name is Mark. I am an alcoholic.” I want that “am” to be “was.” Recovery from addiction is an important step in the journey of many believers, but should never be a stopping place or become central to our identity.

Trauma can also work powerfully to define us according to our past. A person’s identity can be wrapped up in being a veteran or being a victim. Healing is needed, and until the healing comes, victims of trauma should never be told, “Just get over it.” We should patiently help victims receive and give forgiveness. The grace and love of Christ can free believers from the destructive forces of past trauma.

However, past trauma should not define who we are in Christ Jesus. Continually picking at old wounds and rehearsing the narrative of our trauma doesn’t bring healing—it stops it. Our wounds must not become our hobby. And our need for help must not become the basis of our all our relationships. What was broken is made whole, what was wounded is healed. Of course we are scars, but our scars now testify to the grace of God that heals us and calls us His children. We need to live in the present tense goodness and power of God so that past wounds don’t bring present tense injury to others.

As I age, I am also aware of the danger of defining ourselves according to the good things from the past—our glory days. This is not quite like the 1975 high school quarterback who threw the pass that won the state championship and has never let anyone forget it, but it is similar. Even pastors can be so locked-in on how the glory fell at a past revival or visitation of God that they are blind to what God wants to do now. We can be so intent on seeing God move the same way he did in the past that we miss the new thing God desires to do today. Even having been effective in the kingdom in the past can work against God’s purposes if it is an excuse for us to climb into the grandstand and become a spectator.

And, of course, only God can say, “I Am.” All the rest of us must use a present progressive, “I am becoming”—becoming who God made us to be.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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